We didn’t choose the ISA, Minister Shanmugam

Shanmugam - voiddecker.com

“Can you hold this for me?”

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s willingness to engage with social media is refreshing in an often insipid local political arena. By providing his honest thoughts on a variety of social issues beyond his mandate, he sets a good example on how to connect with ordinary Singaporeans when many of his fellow politicians’ idea of interaction in social media is still limited to the posting of strictly-for-fans-only photos of mundane community events.

With this latest interview with Yahoo! Singapore, the minister shows us he is not afraid to talk openly on sensitive topics — with the alternative media no less. This is a welcome move in light of recent talk of the government engaging with non-mainstream outlets. Unfortunately, it is what he said in this discussion on the Internal Security Act (ISA) that is worrying.

Firstly, Shanmugam is treading on very dangerous ground by using the existence of Guantanamo Bay as a justification for the ISA. Surely the minister doesn’t need reminding that the US military detention camp is universally condemned by such quarters as the United Nations, world leaders, human rights groups, and within the US itself as an acute violation of human rights and international law. Is the Singapore government prepared to face up to similar scrutiny should this come up in an international tribunal? Barack Obama has called it a “sad chapter in American history”, and only practical, legal and political difficulties are stopping him from fulfilling his promise to shut it down.

The minister also talked about the consequences of a terrorist attack if one were to hit us: business and investor confidence will be shattered, the economy will become a question mark. It won’t come as a big surprise to Singaporeans that at no point did he mention the loss of lives and loved ones, broken families, and other humanitarian concerns. While I would like to cut him some slack for what appears to be a casual interview, such may be a sad reflection of the mindset that permeates our government — all that matters is economy, economy, economy. In stark contrast, with the destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy this past week, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg wasn’t overly worried that US stock markets had to close for 2 days, a first since 9/11; the mayor was too busy looking after the well-being of his people.

Lastly, it’s hard not to see Shanmugam’s proposition that the ISA is ultimately society’s choice as nothing more than a clever ruse to get the government off the hook. Never mind the human rights violation for now and the fact that society’s wishes don’t justify a wrong – pray tell us, Minister, when have we ever been given a choice in this? It’s not as if there ever was a national referendum where the citizens of Singapore voted to have terrorist suspects locked up without trial. No, we have never told the government that this is okay, neither on dubious grounds of Marxist conspiracies in the past nor counter-terrorism in the present. Many of us do believe in proper laws and rights such as habeas corpus. So please do not pass the buck to us. As Law Minister, you should know exactly where it stops.